When people hear Charlton Athletic are a family club, I’m not convinced they truly understand what that means.
I can’t even remember how young I was when I went to my first game at The Valley, but I know I was a Beaver Cub because it was an outing organised by my local scout troop. Dozens of childhood friends, all experiencing a football game for the first time together, all accompanied by our families, bussing it down from our school carpark on the same convoy of coaches.
A few years later, when I was old enough to be trusted to run around for an hour without causing accident to myself or others, my parents enlisted me in the Charlton Challenge, a coaching scheme set up by the club to inspire primary school children to play football regularly. I (very slowly) rose through the grades, until I moved on to a local Sunday team ahead of secondary school.
And during that transition too, after several Christmas and Birthday pleas, my dad decided it was time to buy me a season ticket – family stand, just below the gangway.
So there I sat every other Saturday for the next decade alongside my father, his father, my cousin and his best friend watching not only my beloved Addicks but also some of the greatest players in the world – Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry. Too many to mention.
In short, as a spectator and a player, Charlton gave me my football education. Yet it wasn’t just a matter of learning the game that I’ve gone on to forge a career writing about, but also the atmosphere in which it happened and the people who created it.
Not only did I sit there surrounded by my immediate family, but within close eye-shot were my friends, my classmates, my Dad’s brother and his stepson, my teachers and countless other acquaintances. Driving to games involved a carpool with our next-door neighbour, his father-in-law and occasionally members of his church. It was a real community, a collective of friends of friends and relations of relations. Everybody recognised everybody, and everybody was proud to be an Addick.
Every fanbase has it’s own group of idiots, but on the whole Charlton supporters are a special bunch. They’re about fun, celebration, inclusion and relentless determination. I was fortunate enough to grow up during the glory years, but the reminders of our humble history and chiefly our constant struggle for survival in the decades prior, when we were forced to close The Valley and groundshare around London, were never far away.
I’m the first to admit I haven’t been the greatest supporter of my club in recent years. I can blame the fact I often work weekends, but excuses would do a disservice to all the fans who have made such monumental personal sacrifices to support their club.
The truth is, tyrannical ownership made The Valley such a toxic place that I began to hate going there. The familiar faces were disappearing, the fun and celebration had been swapped for angst and protest, and most of the players weren’t even around long enough for us to come up with songs about them. After a while, I just couldn’t take more than a handful of visits a season. It was insufferable.
That is why when ESI emerged earlier this year as buyers to finally relieve the club of Roland Duchatelet, I thought my time was finally coming again. I could soon reconnect with the club I’d become so apathetic towards. I could throw myself back into it and relive my childhood every other Saturday. Turns out, the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
Fast forward to present day and there’s the very real possibility that within a few weeks, Charlton Athletic will effectively cease to exist as a football club. Somehow, a series of men in suits who have no interest in Charlton’s future, in Charlton’s family culture or Charlton’s deep, intrinsic roots throughout the South East London community have managed to wedge their way into the boardroom through unsanctioned and unsavoury deals, only to find incredible resistance from fans and a big fat thumbs down from the EFL.
The club is in a baffling situation where the training ground and stadium are still owned by the former owner, Duchatelet, the club is owned by a holding company, ESI, that has failed to provide proof of funds and the subsequent attempted takeover of ESI by businessman Paul Elliott has quite rightly been rejected by the EFL. So, who actually owns Charlton and who is able to fund them? Nobody seems to know, and the worst-case scenario for that is expulsion from the Football League ahead of the new season.
And if you want to know the calibre of these people, Elliott is a property developer with no connection to football, who until recently worked with Chris Farnell, who until recently was attempting to appoint Dave Jones. Incredibly, the former pair were both involved in Bury’s implosion, which took place under horrifyingly similar circumstances less than a year ago.
ESI, meanwhile, was the combination of moneyman Tahnoon Nimer from UAE (motivations no doubt included Sportswashing and soft power) and Matt Southall. Their relationship lasted a mere few weeks as the former accused the latter of embezzlement and boardroom civil war ensured.
And then there’s Duchatelet, a businessman who basically owned a series of clubs across Europe for the chief objective of moving players between them to ramp up their value. When it was clear Charlton fans wouldn’t put up with being just a cog in a wheel and we were relegated to League 1, he introduced internal austerity measures which included no eating at desks because the club wouldn’t employ cleaners, no water bottles for players and no lights on in meetings.
None of these people have anything to do with Charlton Athletic. They’ve never made any decision for the benefit of the Charlton community over themselves. They saw an underperforming club based in London and thought they could all make a quick buck. When it turned out they couldn’t, they scorched the earth and ran to the hills. Because of their actions, we’re on the blink of obliteration.
And I just want you to think for a second how my life would’ve been impacted if Charlton didn’t exist. No introduction to live football as a Beaver cub. No chance to learn how to play the game from professional coaches. No bonding with my dad, my grandad and my cousin on a bi-weekly basis. No integration into an entire community that spanned members from Canterbury to Camberwell. I think it’s safe to assume I wouldn’t have spent my eight years since leaving university making a living by writing about football either.
More than the obvious heartbreak and pain, that’s why I just can’t stomach the idea of Charlton petering out of existence, especially when it’s not a consequence of finances, limited fan-base or poor performances on the pitch – rather, the decisions of a few men who never had the club’s best interests at heart. There are millions and millions of toddler versions of me running around South London, just waiting for an entity like Charlton to come along and help shape their lives.
Consider too, that I’m just a regular case, a typical story of someone who got the Charlton bug. Charlton’s had such a profound impact on the lives of some that they’re now Premier League footballers, earning millions of pounds per year, and England internationals. Joe Gomez and Jonjo Shelvey both belong to that club. Looking back further in our history, so do Jermain Defoe and Rob Lee.
The potential impact of a world without Charlton is poignant in its significance, in so many aspects of the game. Inspiring local boys to take up football as a hobby, giving families a shared interest they can bond over, running an academy that produces Premier League and England quality players on an impressively frequent basis for a club of its size. No matter what team you support, we simply can’t let that happen, and we need everybody’s help, because the governing powers at the moment are failing us.
The EFL have somehow created a system that allows businessmen to sell and buy clubs first and ask for their approval second. It simply doesn’t make sense. The Conservative manifesto ahead of the last election also pledged a fan-led review of the ownership situation in English football following Bury’s demise. Less than a year later, somehow history is on the verge of repeating itself.
So, how can Charlton be saved? American businessman Thomas Sandgaard has put himself in the frame, but he’s not the answer. Charlton will only be safe when its in the hands of people who truly care about the club and the local community, because they have an intrinsic connection to it.
It’s no coincidence that the club’s last three promotions were all masterminded by former players – Alan Curbishley, Chris Powell and most recently Lee Bowyer. Outsiders simply don’t work, because they don’t understand what the fans truly want – a club that firstly produces a team to be proud of, irrespective of results, and secondly a club that intertwines itself in the fabric of South East London.
Nobody cares if we’re in the Premier League, nobody cares about a shiny new stadium on the Greenwich peninsular. We just want Charlton to be what Charlton should be – an epicentre that connects us all and makes us feel like we truly belong to something.
The only interested party meeting that remit is Peter Varney and his partnership with Andrew Barclay. Varney was not only Charlton’s chief executive during the Premier League era, but is also a life-long Charlton fan, just like his father. That theme of family club crops up again.
In the meantime, we need help and support from every football fan in the country. We need you all to raise awareness, to put pressure on the governing bodies and to help us force out these individuals who have no genuine interest in the club’s future.
I can’t fathom a world where something so ingrained into my upbringing, my family’s history and my local community suddenly exists no more. But you shouldn’t either, because there’s a wider point here too. If Bury went first and we go second, maybe – after a few disappointing years and a smidge of boardroom upheaval – your club could be next.
Help save Charlton Athletic before it’s too late, and then help us make sure this happens to no football club ever again.